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A spray of water gently fell through the air in a gently curving parabola onto a young tree fern: the water droplets collected on the fine hairs. The fern was in a pot over which stooped a middle-aged man with a sprayer bottle. It stood on a patio made of blue, red and black ceramic tiles. The tiles were arranged into a mosaic. The design was of a yin/yang symbol whose outer edge was done in a wheel cog motif. The man stood up straight and, stretching his back, he looked out through the diamond sheets. The sheets held in the air, the warmth and the humidity, and the man looked out at the sunlight pouring through the watery envelope: the envelope which held the vacuum: the envelope which held the spindle.

The watery envelope was itself a shell, a bubble, protecting the interior from the violence outside; the violence of high energy particles streaming out from the Sun which if they were to hit a delicate strand of DNA would smash it, like a bowling ball through skittles, breaking all recognisable structure, with potentially lethal consequences. The water was a shield and the bubble, formed by the transparent balloon of water and life, floated in space at sufficient distance from the Sun that the water was liquid.

The bubble was one of many maintaining that orbit from the sun. It was a ribbon of space which humanity had slowly begun to colonise. It was energy rich and, finally, humanity had discovered a method of tapping into the sun’s enormous potential and learnt to exploit it’s fusion cascade.

Humanity had invented a new form of Fat and the man who looked out had been a principle actor in the team that had invented it and co-founded the company that had patented Fat and exploited the invention. He was in most respects a success but life for him had taken a sudden change when his wife was kidnapped. Now he stood and contemplated his life: now that he had been released from prison.

 

“Grace, I have a job for you.”

Paul looked at the slightly plain young woman with calm authority and she looked back impassively.

“Who?”

“The ex-chairman of Fat Inc. Andrew Bayliss. You will pose as a reporter. Do the job and blow his private hab. Don’t worry about making it look like an accident. Usual fee plus 25%.”

The two stood on the lawn, near the pool house, of Paul Goya’s New England estate. The grass was trimmed close, as a golf course green, and needed roughly an equivalent amount of work. The garden was conventional; with maple trees and roses, pergolas, and clematis climbing over, though and across beams of ash which lined and overhung various paths. The paths carved the garden into sections.

“Why would Andrew Bayliss want to talk to a reporter?”

“Oh, you know who he is?”

“No,” said Grace as they slowly moved across the lawn to one of the paths, walking in step with one another. “I just assume he must be rich if he’s an ex-chairman of some company and lives in a hab. Private hab?”

“Very private.”

“Well then.”

“Exposition time? It’s organised. Kill him.”

“Fine but anything I should know. Private army? Pet of the mech? Any minor details which might get me killed?”

“For a hired killer you ask too many questions.”

“Just protecting my sweet ass.”

“Do the job.”

“Fine.” Grace stopped and plucked a deep purple flower. “Oh baby you’re such a hard ass. Business, business, business. Job, work, stop, start, utility.” She breathed deeply and crushed the flower in her hand. “Where is the passion in life? Where is the feeling and the sensuousness? Not here, this is your house and garden but it is meaningless to you.” She looked into his grey eyes.

“Do the job.”

“Not gonna open up?”

“Clearly.”

“There’s nothing clear about you Mr Goya. You’re more full of shadows than a medieval forest, aren’t you Mr Wolf. Mr Crime Boss. Mr Death. Mr Money and Power.” Paul looked at Grace and she blinked. “Go on, tell me something personal and I’ll suck your cock.”

He laughed, “You’re too ugly to suck my cock, my wife or my whores do that. You’re my trained killer.” He reached out and stroked her cheek. “You’re my femme fatale.”

“Fuck you.”

“No, not today.”

Grace looked out across the garden, “And I thought we had something together. I’ve known you since I was little more than a child and . . .” her voice trailed off in fake emotion. “I have always looked up to you.”

“You’ve never looked up to anybody or anything in your entire life.” He smiled at her, “and that’s why I love you. You kill for money and respect nothing. Not even me.”

“Maybe so.”

“You don’t respect me?”

“I honour you as my liege lord and master.” Grace got down on the ground and kowtowed before him.

“Better,” he said, “I’ve had people killed for less.”

“I know I’ve killed some of them.”

“Good. So we understand one another.”

Grace let the moment linger, “No not really. I don’t pretend to understand you but what the fuck. You’ve said the word and Bayliss is a corpse, my Nero, my Caligula.”

“Marcus Aurelius, if you don’t mind.”

“Ahh a moment of revelation perhaps?”

“Perhaps. Or just another mask.”

 

Paul had told Grace that she would have to spend a month living with Andrew Bayliss before she killed him, due to the infrequency of flights between the Fat Inc habs and Earth. So she would have to make a convincing reporter in order to fool him for a month. Great. She would need to do lots of research into Bayliss and Fat Inc. What sort of name was Fat Inc anyway? She sighed and sipped her coffee as she sat back on her sofa in her Chicago apartment. At least there was no ninja crap to do on this job and posing as a journalist for so long would be a different experience. But cold as hell to live with someone for a month before killing them. Nevermind. She got up and walked over to the window and gazed out at the city. It was raining. Far below people scurried beneath umbrellas, mouthed violently and gesticulated wildly at taxis. Some pulled disconsolate dogs. One man stood with his arms up stretched as the heavens descended in sheet after sheet of rain. She watched the wind whip the water against the buildings and the people below. Autumn is coming, she thought, and I will miss the leaves falling.

She had booked herself onto a flight into orbit the following day and out to the Fat Inc habs on a work crew transport a week later. She had only been into orbit a couple of times before and she had particularly enjoyed her holiday on The Freedom Wheel at L4. Lots of zero-gee sex with various partners, a small hit to make, lots of drugs and alcohol. On the whole she had had a wild time and so she was looking forward to something of a repeat experience at Equality. She could do all her research on the transport and could afford to take some R and R beforehand.

The rain seemed to be settling in for the day, and night was beginning to fall, so Grace put on some Bach, let the blinds drop, but didn’t close them, and watched the light fade through dusk to dark as the music danced with the raindrop shadows on the wall. Light pollution from the city lensed through the rain. Streetlights and car sirens mixed and merged with the piano crescendos and the melodies which skipped across her mind like a stone thrown and bouncing across a gently breaking sea.

What had Bayliss done to deserve death? Probably nothing or at least nothing that Grace would rank as a capital offence but although she didn’t really care, she was curious. Maybe it would become clear from her research into him or maybe it was some obscure vendetta thing. She logged on and downloaded a picture of him. He was in his late forties or early fifties with dark hair and a slight air of Cary Grant about him although not the chin, which was rounded and his nose had clearly been broken once and not set properly. Some said that it was wrong to know too much about the target but she didn’t bother about that. She was always morbidly curious about the lives she cut short and had never found that this caused her emotions to interfere with the job. She had done her first hit when she was twelve and had never looked back either emotionally or financially. Frank Gargano’s niece Jodi had asked her to kill a teacher in return for $500 and she had shot him inside his house. She had gone there on the pretence of needing help with a project. Frank Gargano knew Paul Goya and he had referred Grace to Paul as a person with a future. She was calm, businesslike and invisible. Nobody would ever give Grace a second glance walking down the street or in a crowd and she did the job. Was she a psychopath? She didn’t think so but she didn’t know, again she didn’t care. She had no feelings towards the people she killed. They were just anonymous and of all the people she had ever killed she had been closest to Jodi’s teacher and he had looked at her with such a look of surprise when she had walked into the kitchen with the gun that she had nearly laughed. Had the blood and the skull fragments shocked her? Yes like a pathologist trainee and she had been shocked, fascinated and intrigued. Evan at twelve the human body was just a miraculous machine to Grace and she felt like a stunt driver who had just crashed a car. She was fascinated by the car wreck. Rushing on adrenaline, she was scared and exhilarated. Did she feel for him as another thinking, feeling, dreaming soul ripped from this existence by less than a thimble of lead? No he stood between her and what she wanted. Was she a cold, callous killer? Cold but not callous, according to her own reckoning. She was a professional. An outsider, the police or a jury might, however, question the distinction. She was a soldier. She was a mercenary. She was a ronin. She was prone to a degree of introversion, which was unusual in her line of business, and she was a loner.

She set up the micro-irrigation system for her houseplants and packed. She booked her taxi to the airport and wandered into the kitchen. Peering into the fridge she picked out all the perishables and binned them. Then took the bag out to the disposal chute in the hall outside her apartment. She knew that security was going to be tight so she decided not to take any weapons with her because she was confident about her ability to improvise one when necessary. If Trotsky’s assassin could use an ice pick then she could be equally ingenious. She looked at the ID that Ivan, one of Paul Goya’s assistants, had given her. “Grace Schwartz” She always insisted they use her first name wherever practical but they were always so unimaginative about surnames. It amused and pissed her off in equal measure. The picture was bad. She hated pictures of herself at the best of times but in this one she looked slightly frightened, as if she had been startled reading a book. Ivan took a sadistic pleasure in doing this to her. Bastard. Ah well, despite her pride, she knew that the ID would probably help her although Ivan did it not to help but as his idea of an ongoing joke between them. He had never crossed the line into being unprofessional, doctoring an image so that she was cross-eyed or something of that nature, but still it was ongoing and she always needed to check the image before she used it. One extra hassle.

She decided to have a bath and enjoy a long soak. On the Freedom Wheel water had been relatively expensive but here it just fell out of the sky. It wasn’t shipped out of the gravity well or flung out of the asteroid belt. Who knows what it was like further insystem. Still, she figured, in a private hab it was likely to flow as freely as it did Earthside. However on the transport it might be grim. She liked to fill the bath so that once in it the water nearly overflowed. She floated. She luxuriated. Relaxed and calm. She might get caught perhaps. She might get killed. Suffocate in the vacuum void. She might … She might … Hell she should retire. A few more jobs and she would. She wasn’t old but she was tired. Twenty-eight was too young to be so tired but …but …The water felt good and she squirted water at the tap by making a fist.

Typically, she then felt wide-awake and decided to go for a walk. She got dressed and took the elevator down to the lobby and then, turning left, she walked through the night. It was just after nine and the streets were still busy. The rain had stopped and cars swept along the wet road. The air was fresh and the sky was still largely overcast except for the moon peeping from between the clouds. People and faces hurrying into their future moved past her. She looked into their eyes. They didn’t see her. She was another obstacle moving through the city. She saw a couple walking hand in hand. They were in their seventies or eighties and walked steadily along the brightly lit boulevard. Grace strolled past them and wondered what they had seen and done. Were they lovers or had they been turbulently married for fifty years and only found this peace in the twilight of life? She would never know. She walked on. The puddles reflected the sodium streetlights and she passed bars full of drunks and empty lives, full of wage slaves and desperate eyes; seeking love and affirmation, partnership, friendship, comradeship. They found solace and oblivion. They found life and laughter. They found faces that responded and smiled back. They found conversation and small talk, flirtation and music, life and depression. She walked on.

She walked on into rougher neighbourhoods. She saw the neon lights and the strip clubs. She saw the all night pharmacies and the whores. She saw the pimps lurking in doorways and the dealers hawking their wears. Hustle, hustle was the word on the street, which sidled up to her and muttered intimately, offering heavenly delights, cheap, the best deal she would get, cheap nirvana by flesh or chemical, fry your brain or erogenous delectation, titillation, emancipation. Easy and cheap. Neon flashing and smiles leering. Stony faces and determination. Life was hard down among the cutthroats and the suicidal, the dreamers and the schemers, the fallen angels who were brutalised by their own lives. Broken homes, splintered lives, abused and abusing, breaking homes, splintering lives. Victims and villains creating victims who turn into villains. And yet, she thought, as she watched a pimp kicking a drug addict pregnant whore, there was life on the street. It had the desperate intensity of a child’s pain, so sharp, so real. Yet it could achieve epiphany. A laugh can ring through it all bright and true. Joyce had snow. Unity and the gestalt of life. Piss on you all. I’m alive you fuckers. For now I’m alive in this blink of space and this grain of time and I feel and I live and I matter. You cunts. You eaters of slime. You whores, you pimps, you hustlers. You nearly angels. You nearly lovers. You nearly me. You nearly me. Me nearly you. I’ll kill you. I love you. I fear you.

“Yo bitch.” Two men had come up behind her. The one on her right was a young Asian male in his early twenties with a sharp nose, glasses and a thin beard. The second, who stood to her left, was white, about the same age as his partner and stood slightly behind, but carried a knife, and he was the one who had spoken. He squinted at her. He was overweight or possibly his clothes hid a muscular frame. He definitely had a belly and the shoulders of a squat ox. She moved in towards the young Asian and struck him hard on both temples with the knuckles of her fists. He had tried to back off but felt the knife of his partner in his back then, once struck, fallen like one of the Twin Towers she had seen on old history programmes. She kneed him in the face on the way down.

“Come on bitch,” said the white boy, “I’m gonna cut you a new cunt.” She moved towards him and over the body of his comrade. She dummied to his right then made an anti-clockwise roundhouse kick, which hit the back of his left hand and sent the knife flying, and bringing her leg round brought her heel down hard onto his right knee. The knee shattered. Grace walked over to the knife and picked it up.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“Fuck you. My knee. Fuck you. You bitch. Fucking whore. You bitch what have you done to my knee.”

“Who are you calling bitch, bhaenchud?” She brought the knife up under his chin and gently and surgically cut him from the top of his neck to the tip of his chin. The cut wasn’t deep but it could have been and that fact hadn’t been lost on her assailant, who went very quiet. She looked him in the eye and then blew. He blinked several times and then she put the knife up one of his nostrils.

She looked him straight in the eye as she pushed the knife up his nose and up into his brain. Then she stood up and, making her way through the crowd, which had gathered to watch the fun, she walked away.

 

Grace walked carefully around the derelict building. She moved from position to position like a queen across a chessboard with the gun held poised in her hand. She was in an abandoned power station and water dripped from the ceiling. She heard the sound of voices in the distance and jumped as her foot crunched in broken glass. Swearing to herself she carefully moved out of the puddle of fragments and continued warily forward.

The corridor was dark and a large pipe ran the length of it as far as she could see. She heard the sound of scurrying feet, claws on concrete, and looked around for the source. She moved forward towards a flickering light. It flashed irregularly and she heard it click like an insect chattering in Morse. As she moved past the light her shadow danced in front of her and lengthened slowly until the steady brilliance of the next one began to cut into it and she watched it burn away the staccato shadow of the stuttering illumination behind her. Slime coated the walls in places, a viscous algae, down which rivulets of fluid moved. An occasional fly landed upon the slime and fed. Vomiting then sucking up the juices.

She moved past crisp packets and empty drink cans, the corporate logos stained and crumpled. Ahead, on the left, the corridor branched at right angles and she stood listening. Then moving forward with her back to the left wall sliding though the slime and water, gun ready, she approached the off shoot quickly now and, swinging round the corner, fired at the man who stood there. The liquid from the water pistol sprayed into his face and eyes. He howled and rubbed at his eyes. She continued firing and drenched his clothing. Then Grace put the gun inside the belt of her combat trousers and, reaching into her pocket, produced a box of matches.

She lit one and threw it towards the man. It fell short. The man looked up at the sound, turned and fled. She flicked another lit match after him and it landed where he had stood. She pulled out the water pistol and fired at the match. The petrol from the gun ignited on contact with the match and made a puddle of fire on the filthy corridor floor. It burned briefly blue and Japanese maple leaf autumn red. Its fingers flickered, imploring like hands reaching out of hell. She moved past the quickly dying fire and walked along the corridor in pursuit of the man.

Moving along the corridor, from position to position, as the corridor branched and branched again like the inside of a smoker’s lung, Grace suddenly came to the edge of a pool of sunlight where the radiance poured through a break in the ceiling. Dust motes floated in the air and glittered like silver flecks, like tiny fish swimming in an icy well. She moved into the light and let her eyes adjust to the brilliance then, climbing up onto a pipe she peered out onto the roof. Clear. She pulled herself up. Flat roof. Very 20 th Century. She ran the hundred metres to the edge of the building and sheltered next to the low wall then moved along it until she came to a fire escape. She clambered over the wall and made her way down the ladder, which was clamped to the side of the building. She stepped onto the bottom rung and with a loud snap it gave under her weight and she fell the final twelve feet onto the tarmac below.

She landed on her arse and had the wind knocked out of her. She felt and then smelled the petrol as it was sprayed onto her. A group of three had been waiting in a doorway recess to the right of the ladder’s uppermost point. The man she had shot before was one of them. Picking herself up she rushed them then smashed through the door and ran back into the building. She ran down a corridor looking left and right into deserted offices filled with overturned furniture, smashed computers and smelling of urine. She ran straight into Paul Goya as she turned a corner. He smiled at her with a leer that turned into the Cheshire cat’s smile. He had a book of matches with the name Fat Inc written in blue, in a Matisse font, on a white background. He lit a match and threw it at her. It went out in mid flight. He lit a second and threw it. A third. The third arced towards her. The flame flaring away from her like a comet’s tail away from the sun. She blew at it and it arced towards her. It sailed through the air like a tiny arrow flying true and pure. She thought about Nabakov and the Russian Beauty. She awoke. It was four o’clock in the morning.

 

She got out of bed and wandered into the kitchen. The kitchen floor tiles were cold under her feet. Opening the fridge she wished that she had left herself some milk for a hot chocolate and not been so organised. She took a carton of orange juice out of a cupboard and, having poured herself a drink, went into the lounge and slumped onto the sofa. She didn’t switch on the main overhead light but contented herself with a small uplight. She put on her glasses and one dataglove and, having moved through the desktop sim, she turned to one of the news channels.

More rioting in the Pacific Island refugee camps and a bomb had gone off killing 4 Americas Federal Republic troops in the occupied Philippines. Pictures of starving children in the North Chinese Rightist Republic and the latest plans for the Washington DC Nuclear Atrocity Memorial. She listened to angry voices furious that the public park, which some had suggested, had been vetoed. The real estate was too valuable, even through it was one of the world’s largest mass graves, alongside Auschwitz (and the other Nazi death camps), Karachi and Shanghai. These were graveyards, which would forever be scarred across human consciousness.

She watched a lighter piece about a Polish dairy farmer who sang to his cows and had won the Eurovision Song Contest with a song his thirteen-year-old daughter had written. Tomorrow she would be in orbit.

 

Control shift escape

 

The AIs had mostly flown the crèche. Technology had hit the singularity and the machine intelligences and their post-human companions had left Earth and the Sol system behind as a sort of nature reserve for humanity. A few AIs were left as game wardens, with a fairly non-interventionist brief, and they overlooked the nano world for threats to their ancestors and watched for the emergence of new AIs and post-humans.

 

Humanity had continued its march of progress but with the knowledge that they were to the mech, as the AIs and the post-human were collectively known, as humanity was to chimps or maybe single celled organisms. (There was no yardstick by which humanity could measure the gap. In the same way as no chimp fully understands the gap between it and Einstein. Also there was no typology of mech evolution. That knowledge simply didn’t cross the event horizon that had left the bulk of humanity behind. What was the evolutionary gap between the first mech and later generations? Was such a question valid? Had they evolved into a group consciousness? Had all of humanity’s memes gained a collective consciousness and evolved beyond humanity and the limits of individual consciousness; language, art, science and the general realm of semiotics; and become a new entity? ) Humanity had entered a new era of angst. What was the point of progress, when all you could achieve was a better stick for finding ants to eat and your children were building the Brooklyn Bridge or probing and investigating the geological, chemical makeup of a place circling a nighttime twinkling light far up above the tree canopy? For many a new age of introversion had taken hold. And for others the only worthwhile goal was to become post-human and join the flight from the meat.

 

 

Grace stood alongside a group of West African tourists gazing down at the Earth, at Africa, at the western coast of the cradle of humanity, as the tourists chatted excitedly in English about how they had stared up in wonder as children at this the oldest of the hub stations; Equality. Grace looked down at the Earth between her feet as she gazed through the diamond floor. She turned at the sound of one of her companions throwing up, due to vertigo, and saw two cleaners in blue uniforms approach the group with a mop and bucket. She wanted a drink and contemplated going back to her room to change before hitting a bar. No, after she had changed, food was best then drink.

 

She contemplated a piece of pepper steak on the end of her fork, vat grown and designed to taste exactly like the real thing and with the same texture and tasting identical to a million other portions. Oh, it was actually quite nice and had flavour. She picked up the menu and read the sales blurb which boasted of having sampled the entire Scottish Aberdeen Angus free-range beef herd to get a real sense of variety to the meat. It was like getting a single malt when you were expecting a cheap blend. As she ate she wished she hadn’t ordered the sauce to mask the blandness. The vegetables had crunch. This was a revelation; even the wine was drinkable.

She looked ‘round the restaurant at her fellow diners. Respectable, middle-class, middle aged and elderly. She was probably the youngest person in the room by fifteen to twenty years. No, there was a honeymoon couple over in the corner. The two guys had eyes only for one another. To be young, wealthy and in love. She hated them. She was jealous of them. It was disgusting how dare they flaunt their happiness. She felt empty. The bastards in their fool’s paradise. Smug and arrogant. Yet was there any other meaning to life. She drank her wine and a gloom descended on her. She looked into her glass, at the light hitting the sombre red liquid. Faked sequences of summer sunlight captured by leaves and turned into fruits and sugars. Faked convincingly yet faked. She rolled the flavour around her mouth. There was no attempt at deception and it would have been obvious from the price that it hadn’t been hauled up the gravity well.

Lemon cheesecake and cream. What a middlebrow meal. Like a pub lunch in England and yet it was what it was and didn’t pretend. They offered her a complimentary brandy, which she accepted and swirled it around the glass. She watched the lines made as it adhered to the inside of the glass when she rolled it. It was an inferior brandy though and she didn’t finish it.

 

The room was panelled in fake white padded leather and was tiny; a five-meter cube. She put on her glasses, gloves and earphones then jumped into her site. The scorpion sat on her foot and its tail bit into her ankle and her body turned into sand. She was an invisible entity in the desert. She pointed down and went under the surface of the sand for an apparent few meters then emerged to be in the centre of a domed oasis with transparent walls. Green and tropical within; red desert without. A butterfly with iridescent wings settled onto her idealised virtual hand and her message software opened up. No new messages. She waved away the program. She chose some Miles Davis from the files on her jukebox and activated her browser.

She was in a Victorian library with her invisible back to a bay window through which, if she had turned round, could be seen a Capability Brown landscape, at sunset, in autumn. Her Point Of View hovered at head height behind a walnut desk with a Faberge lamp and a 1920s typewriter. She flicked skins and was in a corridor with open doorways to left and right in open space, no ceiling, no walls just a starscape, which was downloaded with a fresh 3D space environment every day. She moved her POV down the corridor until she came to her news folder room, going through the door she moved into a model of the solar system, expanded the magnification on the model and flew down, over a weather pattern free Earth, until she hovered over London. Displayed floating above a Dickensian representation of the city; St Paul’s dominating and complete with Hackney cabs, bustling streets, Newgate prison, mudlarks and the river threading through it like an open sewer; were her choice of icons for various London news services. Ignoring the landscape she flew inside the banner portal for BBC news.

She flicked round the world reading articles, watching reports and arguing in a few forums. The album had long since finished and she had started streaming radio. Switching off the glasses she left the hotel room and made her way to a bar. Grace didn’t want any company so she sat in a corner and with a bottle of Chilean red and switched her glasses back on, turned off her auditory nerves and started reading a trashy novel. Restless she turned off the novel, put her auditory nerves back online and started channel hopping the entertainment channels until bored of soaps and quizzes she wandered onto the Yale site and watched the first in a series of lectures on the Phoenicians. She had noticed, whilst the lecture was reduced to a tile display so she could see to sip her drink, that the bar had filled up and a beautiful black woman with blond dreads had slipped into the seat opposite her. She wore a strappy florescent yellow dress and traced a pattern with one long microscreen fingernail on the granite surface of the table.

When the lecture was over Grace switched out of the net and poured another drink from the half full bottle.

“Holiday?” said the woman.

“Working.”

“It’s my first time off Earth. I’m going out to the Jupiter L4 system. My name’s Kesho.”

“Grace.”

“Like Grace Kelly.”

“Sorry.”

“Grace Kelly? No? Mid-20 th century film star.”

“No,” said Grace shrugging.

“I’m a big fan of 20 th century art. What do you do?”

“I’m a journalist.”

“Oh you must get to travel lots.”

“Some but the deadlines are a killer. And the danger is ending up a drunk or a burn out.”

“Mmmmh.”

“I like your nails,” said Grace.

“They’re just stick on,” said Kesho peeling one off. “I bite my nails but I like beautiful nails.” She reattached the nail and looked Grace in the eye. “Do you fancy going somewhere we can dance?”

 

They went dancing in a club two levels above. Scored some coke, picked up a man and shared him and each other in Kesho’s hotel room. Cocaine on the clitoris is a wild sensation.

 

The next day tired but relaxed Grace went swimming in a pool on the viewing level. Diving down to look out at the stars or, when it came round into view, she looked down at the Pacific with its giant weather systems. The freighter she was booked onto, that would take her to the shuttle then on to Bayliss’ hab, was due to leave in 6 hours and she wanted to take advantage of the space before being crammed onto the bubble can. At least the freighter was big enough to have spin and the semblance of gravity but it would be her first time on a ship spinning inside the empty middle of a sphere of Kuiper Belt water and ice. Also it would be her first time away from the real time net and, on the freighter, she would only have her own, and the ship’s, processors and databases. The speed of light was going to be a perceptible factor in her download times, from Earth based sites, making complex environments, generated remotely, increasingly jerky and increasingly irritating to submerge in. Even her desktop environment was going to have to run with limited capacity; there were only so many petaflops her processors were capable of.

 

Inside the balloon of water and ice, aboard the freighter, which was spinning to maintain the feel of a single gravity, Grace crawled into her bedroom for the next 37 days. It was large enough to sleep in comfortably but not to stand up in. She felt a little like she was in a padded cell, even more so than the room on Equality. It was a coffin of white (again) leather (again) fake vat grown leather (again {probably}). It was like camping, in that her bags and stuff surrounded her, since there was little room for storage versus living space in the AG areas. Towards the center of the spindle it was a different matter but she wanted her things with her, not stowed away in the micro g areas.

The bubble can was a strange looking beast from a distance. It looked, when lit up, like something from one of the deep ocean trenches had been re-engineered by a rail company and a 1930s sci-fi illustrator. It was a huge ball of liquid and ice with lights and movement on the inside to which a propulsion system had been strapped and it hauled behind it (under it or above it depending on your choice of orientation) was the supplies from the Earth-Moon system and the Outer System; the asteroid belt, the Jupiter system (with its siblings at Jupiter-Sol L4 and L5) and the Kuiper Belt. There were finished goods and ice, nutrients for the Fat farms; nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and also other useful supplies; carbon, silicon, hydrogen, oxygen, et al, as well as supplies for the food growth vats and compilers. The bulk was ice from the Kuiper Belt; huge bubbles, rock free comets, sealed, to prevent ablation, in diamond (which itself would be recycled).

It was like a return to a bygone era, the age of the square-rigger, the long slow voyage, hauling cargo and workers to a distant outpost of a commercial empire. But it was literally a world away from the Phoenicians building an empire around the Mediterranean, and beyond, yet maybe not so very different. They had bestowed upon humanity the alphabet amongst other things and Grace wondered what her civilisation would be remembered for. The twilight? Or a reappraisal of the dream? The conquest of man. The ideology of progress. The baton had been passed and a new covenant was required.

She crawled out of the coffin/cabin, down a ladder, into a magnolia corridor with a faulty light, which flickered irregularly. She moved down the corridor into steady suntone light, past the staggered ladders and coffin doors towards the serpentine stairwell. She climbed down two decks and walked into one of the communal areas. Maybe she should take up scrimshaw for the duration of the trip, like a 19 th century sailor, she thought to herself, on vat grown whalebone.

Part of her was slightly annoyed at how spacious the communal areas were. They could have made them slightly smaller and the cabins slightly bigger. She could go swimming in the pool or exercise in the gym but not stand up in her room. It was ridiculous. It seemed to be a hangover from some old space tradition. There were people sitting around playing cards, playing computer games or immersed in their own media VR when she strolled in; and, looking around, she saw that her travelling companions weren’t exactly the scum of the universe but weren’t exactly the cream either. These were working people maybe not out of place, in ages past, on an oil rig or building rail roads except of course the main differences were that they were more racially cosmopolitan, even than the navies that crossed America, and far from uniformly male and muscular. Adaptable and reasonably intelligent was in; brawn was out.

She made herself comfortable in a corner and jacked into the onboard systems. The desktop was the deck of a clipper ship sailing with nearly all its canvas unfurled; from a full set of jib sails to top gallants and sky sails. Dolphins swam escort and the sun rode high in a cloudless sky. The sails were full and tight. A new season’s tea for the fashionable set perhaps. The race from imperial China. She moved her POV so she skimmed over the sea above the dolphins. One leaped over her POV and the games menu opened up in front of her. Quite a few required a full cortical jack but she’d always shied away from those. So back to the desktop. At the top of the crow’s test she found something she wanted to explore. She loaded one of her avatars, from her PC back in her room, and moved into an ambient VR sim/chatroom.

 

Chapter 2

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